Usually, the goal of PR professionals is getting people to talk about their latest project. But, occasionally, they just want people to shut up.
For weeks, anticipation has been building for the July 21 release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in the wildly popular series. Last week, someone calling himself Gabriel leaked what he claimed was the surprise ending, threatening to dampen that Potter excitement.
Thanks to the Web, information (and disinformation) runs non-stop, threatening to spoil a carefully planned entertainment launch.
Additionally, product manufacturers looking for a tightly guarded product launch have to worry about porous supply chain management, fearful that an employee at a storage facility or retail outlet could pilfer a product to sell on eBay. Thus, companies and their communications departments need to walk a tightrope of building buzz, while preventing leaks, as a launch approaches.
Scholastic, the American publisher of the last Harry Potter book, has called the spoiler just "one more theory."
"If I spent all of my time dealing with the bogus things that people put up on the Internet about Harry Potter, I wouldn't have time to do my real job," says Kyle Good, VP of corporate communications at Scholastic. "I respond to the media."
Companies with product launches might keep the number of pre-release products in circulation to a minimum. Tim Klein, VP of PR for AT&T's Wireless Unit, says that only six people at the entire company had the iPhone, before its release on May 29.
Recently, there was an actual leak of the new Michael Moore documentary Sicko, which is scheduled to debut in theatres on July 29. In response, Peter Hurwitz, the general counsel for The Weinstein Company (TWC) issued an angry statement promising legal action against the person responsible, and Harvey Weinstein says TWC has hired security firm Kroll Associates to find the perpetrator.
"We created lots of phony sites, and people had to input their private information to gain access to Sicko," the New York Post quotes Weinstein. "We are turning over all the information to the police and prosecutors and are stopping Internet piracy."
For the 2006 launch of T.M.X. Elmo, Fisher-Price Friends selected independent toy analysts Jim Silver and Chris Byrne as the only two recipients of pre-launch Elmos, outside of the internal team. Fisher-Price reps also asked for signed nondisclosures.
While many are still employing tight security, some companies are coming to grips with the fact that their brand doesn't exclusively belong to them anymore. No longer in full control of how (or when, in some cases) their newest offering appears in the marketplace, new strategies and tactics are being used to appeal to stakeholders.
"The leak dynamic is very different today in the Web 2.0 world we live in versus what PR would've experienced five years ago," says Stephen Jones, EVP at GolinHarris who served as the lead for Nintendo's launch of the Wii video game console in November 2006. "There's a fine line between cultivating buzz and discussion on one hand and, on the other, locking down every bit of information so that you negate participation with the brand in social media discussion."
In the case of the Wii, information about games and pricing was slowly disseminated and consoles were placed in a few homes across the country well before the launch date in order to build word of mouth buzz.
"In a way, it embraced the fact that people are hungry to find out about these products," says Jones. "It encouraged people to develop opinions and share them."
Regardless of how companies decide to handle their product launches, sometimes a little extra reminder can provide the best security.
"[The Potter books] come in boxes wrapped in tape and say ‘Do not open,'" says Good.